Recent revelations about how Russian agents inserted ads on Facebook, in an attempt to influence the 2016 election, present a troubling question: Is Facebook bad for democracy?
As a scholar of the social and political implications of technology, I believe that the problem is not about Facebook alone, but much larger: Social media is actively undermining some of the social conditions that have historically made democratic nation states possible.
I understand that’s a huge claim, and I don’t expect anyone to believe it right away. But, considering that nearly half of all eligible voters received Russian-sponsored fake news on Facebook, it’s an argument that needs to be on the table.
How we create a shared reality
Let’s start with two concepts: an “imagined community” and a “filter bubble.”
The late political scientist Benedict Anderson famously argued that the modern nation-state is best understood as an “imagined community” partly enabled by the rise of mass media such as newspapers. What Anderson meant is that the sense of cohesion that citizens of modern nations felt with one another – the degree to which they could be considered part of a national community – was one that was both artificial and facilitated by mass media.
Of course there are many things that enable nation-states like the U.S. to hold together. We all learn (more or less) the same national history in school, for example. Still, the average lobster fisherman in Maine, for example, doesn’t actually have that much in common with the average schoolteacher in South Dakota. But, the mass media contribute toward helping them view themselves as part of something larger: that is, the “nation.”
Democratic polities depend on this shared sense of commonality. It enables what we call “national” policies – an idea that citizens see their interests aligned on some issues. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein explains this idea by taking us back to the time when there were only three broadcast news outlets and they all said more or less the same thing. As Sunstein says, we have historically depended on these “general interest intermediaries” to frame and articulate our sense of shared reality.
Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig and Sunstein too had identified this phenomenon of group isolation on the internet in the late 1990s. Inside a filter bubble, individuals basically receive only the kinds of information that they have either preselected, or, more ominously, that third parties have decided they want to hear.
The targeted advertising behind Facebook’s newsfeed helps to create such filter bubbles. Advertising on Facebook works by determining its user’s interests, based on data it collects from their browsing, likes and so on. This is a very sophisticated operation.
Facebook does not disclose its own algorithms. However, research led by psychologist and data scientist at Stanford University Michael Kosinski demonstrated that automated analysis of people’s Facebook likes was able to identify their demographic information and basic political beliefs. Such targeting can also apparently be extremely precise. There is evidence, for example, that anti-Clinton ads from Russia were able to micro-target specific voters in Michigan.
The problem is that inside a filter bubble, you never receive any news that you do not agree with. This poses two problems: First, there is never any independent verification of that news. Individuals who want independent confirmation will have to actively seek it out.
Second, psychologists have known for a long time about “confirmation bias,” the tendency of people to seek out only information they agree with. Confirmation bias also limits people’s ability to question information that confirms or upholds their beliefs.
Not only that, research at Yale University’s Cultural Cognition Project strongly suggests that people are inclined to interpret new evidence in light of beliefs associated with their social groups. This can tend to polarize those groups.
All of this means that if you are inclined to dislike President Donald Trump, any negative information on him is likely to further strengthen that belief. Conversely, you are likely to discredit or ignore pro-Trump information.
It is this pair of features of filter bubbles – preselection and confirmation bias – that fake news exploits with precision.
Creating polarized groups?
These features are also hardwired into the business model of social media like Facebook, which is predicated precisely on the idea that one can create a group of “friends” with whom one shares information. This group is largely insular, separated from other groups.
The software very carefully curates the transfer of information across these social networks and tries very hard to be the primary portal through which its users – about 2 billion of them – access the internet.
Facebook depends on advertising for its revenue, and that advertising can be readily exploited: A recent ProPublica investigation shows how easy it was to target Facebook ads to “Jew Haters.” More generally, the site also wants to keep users online, and it knows that it is able to manipulate the emotions of its users – who are happiest when they see things they agree with.
As the Washington Post documents, it is precisely these features that were exploited by Russian ads. As a writer at Wired observed in an ominously prescient commentary immediately after the election, he never saw a pro-Trump post that had been shared over 1.5 million times – and neither did any of his liberal friends. They saw only liberal-leaning news on their social media feeds.
In this environment, a recent Pew Research Center survey should not come as a surprise. The survey shows that the American electorate is both deeply divided on partisan grounds, even on fundamental political issues, and is becoming more so.
All of this combines to mean that the world of social media tends to create small, deeply polarized groups of individuals who will tend to believe everything they hear, no matter how divorced from reality. The filter bubble sets us up to be vulnerable to polarizing fake news and to become more insular.
The end of the imagined community?
At this point, two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from social media outlets. This means that two-thirds of Americans get at least some of their news from highly curated and personalized black-box algorithms.
Facebook remains, by a significant margin, the most prevalent source of fake news. Not unlike forced, false confessions of witchcraft in the Middle Ages, these stories get repeated often enough that they could appear legitimate.
What we are witnessing, in other words, is the potential collapse of a significant part of the imagined community that is the American polity. Although the U.S. is also divided demographically and there are sharp demographic differences between regions within the country, partisan differences are dwarfing other divisions in society.
This is a recent trend: In the mid-1990s, partisan divisions were similar in size to demographic divisions. For example, then and now, women and men would be about the same modest distance apart on political questions, such as whether government should do more to help the poor. In the 1990s, this was also true for Democrats and Republicans. In other words, partisan divisions were no better than demographic factors at predicting people’s political views. Today, if you want to know someone’s political views, you would first want to find out their partisan affiliation.
The reality of social media
To be sure, it would be overly simplistic to lay all of this at the feet of social media. Certainly the structure of the American political system, which tends to polarize the political parties in primary elections, plays a major role. And it is true that plenty of us also still get news from other sources, outside of our Facebook filter bubbles.
But, I would argue that Facebook and social media offer an additional layer: Not only do they tend to create filter bubbles on their own, they offer a rich environment for those who want to increase polarization to do so.
Communities share and create social realities. In its current role, social media risks abetting a social reality where differing groups could disagree not only about what to do, but about what reality is.
You know driverless cars are coming. You’ve heard about them. But what exactly do they mean for our future? In this article, we break it down.
Like many, you may have spent this morning sitting in an hour of bumper-to-bumper traffic, impatiently tapping your steering wheel as you inched ever so slowly toward your office. This is the norm for millions of people around the world, but all that looks like it will be changing, and sooner than you might think.
Autonomous vehicles (AV) are The Next Big Thing in the tech industry. It might sound a little like a farfetched science fiction movie, but think back to those landline locked days when phones were used merely for necessary communication. Who could have envisioned a world in which we all hold the internet in our hands?
Yet in 10 years that has become our reality, and it looks as if the same will be true for driverless cars. Google, Uber, and Tesla - to name a few - are already developing and testing prototypes, and some autonomous features are currently available in certain cars.
So what does this new world of driving mean for us? That’s the big question, and it’s not so easily answered. However, what we do know points to some pretty exciting things as this technology revolutionizes the way we all travel.
What Does It Mean for Safety?
One of the greatest pushes for autonomous vehicles is the obvious improvements in safety that would result. In 2016, the United States alone saw over 31,000 fatal car accidents, resulting in over 35,000 deaths, most of these attributed to human error. Take the human out of the equation and you have a possible solution to this problem.
This increased safety is pretty much guaranteed. The automated vehicles will have the internal technology to “talk,” not just to us, but to roads, other vehicles, and even traffic signals. The sole job of the driverless vehicle will be to safely deposit its passengers at their destination.
Think of all the risks drivers currently face:
• Distraction of mobile devices
• Road rage
• Drowsiness/sleepiness behind the wheel
• Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
• Attending to children’s needs while driving
• Running late and rushing
The list goes on and on - drivers are at risk primarily because human beings are flawed, and even the best driver can have a bad day. Driverless vehicles take these risk factors out of our transportation experience.
However, there are some who would argue that there are inherent risks in the development of this kind of advanced technology. As with much modern day technology, there is potential for cybercriminal activity and hacking.
The Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled “The Dangers of the Hackable Car,” reports that, “Some experts warn of a day when millions of fully internet-connected vehicles will be at risk of being hijacked remotely. A mass hack could be catastrophic for the self-driving cars of the future, especially if those cars don’t have steering wheels or other backup systems to let drivers take manual control.”
In spite of these concerns, most agree that the improvements in the overall safety of human beings far outweighs the possible risks that might follow, especially considering that most of these companies are already doing the research and development necessary to guard against such dangers.
What Does It Mean for Productivity
In the new world of autonomous vehicles, not only are people safer, they are able to make more productive use of the time. All those distractions we just mentioned that put drivers at risk? They disappear.
• Your phone no longer distracts you from the task at hand, but rather IS the task at hand, as you allow the vehicle to take you where you want to go.
• Didn’t get enough sleep? Catch up with a nap on your commute to work.
• A few drinks doesn’t mean danger for you or anyone around you as you get into your car.
• Conference calls and meetings can simply happen on the way to and from work, and not just when you are in the office.
The possibilities are endless. Rather than spend hours of your life driving to and from destinations, you are now able to accomplish more than ever as you let your car do the work for you.
With the average American spending the equivalent of seven 40 hour workweeks in the car each year, this has staggering implications for the way we live.
What Does It Mean for the Economy?
This is one of the main factors which could slow down the progress of this research and development. We know that ultimately, driverless cars have the potential to be very good for the economy. Here are a few ways this technological advance will impact the economy.
• As man-driven vehicles become a thing of the past, and so will the jobs entailed by those vehicles. Delivery services, taxi and bus drivers, and truck drivers, to name a few, will become obsolete as those services become automated.
• However, as the need for these jobs gradually decreases, there will be in an influx of new jobs as well, as a result of this technology. This will likely happen over time, meaning a gradual job displacement, rather than rapid, mass job loss.
• While it’s hard to know exactly how the public would respond as automated vehicles become the primary means of transportation, car ownership may drastically decrease, and investment in a vehicle will become an outdated concept. After all, many already choose to grab an Uber over driving for themselves. Why purchase an automated vehicle when you can just rent one for your commute every day?
• We could see growth in cities as massive parking garages are no longer needed, and that space becomes available for homes, businesses, or even green space.
The economic implications of the driverless car seem complex and far reaching, but it’s important to recognize that these changes will be happening incrementally, and much of what’s predicted will be a long time in the making.
What Does It Mean For the Environment?
This is a pretty open-ended question, with very little certainty about the answer. For now, it seems that autonomous vehicles have the potential to be either great, or really not great, for the environment. Here are some of the potential positive impacts:
• The decrease in safety risk means a decrease in safety precautions. Much of the current equipment required for vehicle safety will not longer be needed, meaning less energy spent developing those materials, and less weight in the vehicle itself, resulting in less energy required for the vehicle to run.
• Programming might mean that cars only ever use the most fuel-efficient routes.
• Automated vehicles could use up to 90% less energy than cars today.
What are the potential negative impacts, though?
• Because car rides would no longer require anything of the driver, many might be willing to live even farther from the workplace, or more readily take long drives, as it won’t negatively impact the time in their day, meaning MORE driving, not less.
• See that last point in the positive impacts column? Well, it’s true that automated vehicles could use up to 90% less energy, but it’s also true that they could use up to 200% more, according to researchers.
It’s hard for even the experts to really know how the advent of automated driving will impact our environment, but researchers and developers building these prototypes are listening to concerns and being very proactive as they look to the future of driving.
What Does it Mean for the Car Itself?
When you imagine this driverless car taking you where you need to go, you’re probably picturing your current vehicle without a steering wheel, or something along those lines. However, in actuality, cars may be entirely redesigned as steering and powering features become automated and certain safety features are no longer necessary.
You might see:
• Chairs that swivel so that occupants can face one another and chat or conduct meetings (as with the Mercedes Benz F015)
• Interiors designed specifically tailored for the desires of the owner.
• Sofas or beds for lounging and relaxing.
The car’s place in society will change as well. If car ownership becomes a thing of the past, so will the idea of garages, not just parking garages, but home garages as well. Thus the change in car design could lead to a change in home design.
As transportation changes, so will people’s lives, and this has far reaching implications for the makeup of our not just our homes, but our cities, and ultimately the world, as well.
Automated Vehicles are Coming: Are You Ready?
While it’s true that the road to driverless cars is a long one, there’s no doubt that we are already driving down that road (or being driven down that road, as the case may be).
While some might view this prospect as somewhat frightening, it has the potential to improve all of our lives for the better, giving us hours back in our day and making us, and those who come after us, safer than ever as we travel from place to place.
When you think of the ideal version of your nation, it likely reflects your own values. We vote in accordance with our values and live our own lives according to them as well.
Critical to the success of both people and their nations are the values they adopt. Personal values are central to where people end up in life. Values influence actions and these subsequent actions help determine life’s outcomes, both in terms of happiness and financial success.
Those who value friendship over work, for example, experience a different world than their more diligent counterparts. And as it is true for you, so is it true for your country.
At the national level, cultural values influence what institutions are formed and how they perform. It is difficult to maintain a democracy if the underlying values necessary to sustain it aren’t respected in the first place.
However, and here’s the twist, the values that shape personal success aren’t always the same as those that govern national success. Sometimes called “the social dilemma,” what is best associated with success for ourselves can be disastrous for the nation. So what is the value recipe for success?
We answered this question in our recent article “The Happy Culture: A Theoretical, Meta-Analytic and Empirical Review of the Relationship Between Culture and Wealth and Subjective Well-Being.” Among one of the largest studies ever conducted, spanning over 40 years of data for both individuals and countries, we establish what values predict both a good life and a thriving nation.
The four core values
The values we studied were based on the work of the social psychologist, Geert Hofstede, who developed one of the oldest and most established cultural models. The terms used to describe these values were developed during the early 1970s and reflect the times:
Masculinity vs Femininity: Masculine values reflect a desire for achievement, ability to plan for the future but also conspicuous consumption or materialism, whereas feminine values are more socially oriented and altruistic.
Individualism vs Collectivism: Individualists essentially follow their own path, while collectivists let the needs or desires of the group determine their actions.
Low vs. High Power Distance: Power distance indicates the degree to which one accepts inequality, hierarchy or authoritarianism.
Low vs High Uncertainty Avoidance: High uncertainty avoidance reflects a desire for rules or consistency and a belief that the world is a dangerous place and what is new or unpredictable should be avoided.
Values for a successful life
So what values should you adopt? You probably want to know the ones that make you wealthy and happy. Focusing on wealth alone doesn’t cut it. Values turn out to be more important for predicting happiness than salary, with one sensible exception: Pay satisfaction.
For everything else, the values best associated with a happy and wealthy life were low individualism, low power distance — in other words, a lack of authoritarianism in your life — and low uncertainty avoidance.
Masculinity had a mixed effect. While the ability to plan for the future can be universally recommended, that “need for achievement” component comes at quite a cost. Those who score higher on masculinity make more money but also tend to be unhappier, despite the higher pay. By the way, this isn’t a new observation. Economist Adam Smith wrote about it more than 250 years ago.
We also looked at an element related to masculinity called gender inegalitarianism, which is typically studied in terms of how it adversely affects women — it’s similar to what we’re learning amid the ongoing Harvey Weinstein scandal. It is notable that chauvinism typically doesn’t benefit chauvinists themselves. It is among the best indicators of an unhappy life. Everyone would be better off with less of it.
Values for a successful nation
Moving on, we repeated our research strategy with 48 countries or regions, from Australia to Vietnam. Drawing on four decades of cultural indices as well as national well-being, corruption and GDP-per-capita data, we replicated some of our previous individual level relationships, but found them to be significantly stronger at the national level.
Repeatedly, values were key predictors of a successful nation but often in contradiction to popular or anecdotal advice. In stark contrast to the economic historian Niall Ferguson’s widely promoted killer cultural apps aimed at achieving prosperity, promoting the need for achievement as well as materialism, values associated with masculinity, is terrible for a nation, both in terms of happiness and wealth. Worse advice than Ferguson’s has rarely been given.
Hoping for a strong man? Expect the worst
A much better case can be made for promoting co-operation, trade and reciprocal altruism, all associated with more feminine cultures. High power distance and high uncertainty avoidance were excellent predictors of an incompetent or corrupt government that showed toxic trickle-down effects on the wealth and happiness of the population.
This constellation of values often manifests when people look for an authority or “strong man” to solve national problems, fear the outsider (especially immigrants) and have an over-reliance on prison and punishment as well as a willingness to trade liberty for security. A nation or two that is turning in this direction might pop into your mind right now. If so, expect even worse to come.
Individualism requires financial means
For the most part, the set of values that prove detrimental to individual success are the same for the nation, with one exception.
Individualism switches outcomes. While often negatively associated with a person’s individual well-being, nations that promote individual liberty and the freedom to follow one’s own path are indeed happiest, especially if these nations are wealthy.
Apparently, if emphasizing personal fulfilment, it is best to have the financial means to fulfil.
All of this can be considered a wake-up call.
Values play key role
Both economics and political science typically operate from the assumption that cultural values are irrelevant to the functioning of a nation.
With the steady rise of illiberal and dysfunctional democracies, we are learning that values do play a role, a lesson that increases in costs the slower we are to absorb it. In order to perform, our nation’s institutions need people with supporting underlying values that are considered important to the population.
Aside from regarding dangerously high levels of inequality as being desirable (high power distance, for example), fear is particularly poisonous to a nation (high uncertainty avoidance).
Unfortunately, fear is also particularly effective at maintaining a viewing audience, spurring all forms of media to emphasize, distort or even manufacture stories of threat. Disentangling the promotion of cultural toxins from the more beneficial roles of the Fourth Estate appears to be the challenge of our time.